First Data Wields Scale, Architecture to Attract Innovators

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With its IPO out of the way, First Data is accelerating its focus on merchant technology, and that means luring the developers who are rapidly changing how people shop and pay.

There is a race to attract these innovators, which want to limit the number of partners they work with to get to market.

"These developers are not going to work with a lot of different systems," said Dan Charron, executive vice president of global business solutions for First Data. "We want to give them the ability to get their innovations out there to a lot of different places through our scale."

By seeking third-party developers, First Data joins of a market of merchant acquirers that includes companies such as PayPal, Square, Revel and Poynt. The game for these companies is to position themselves as a one-stop-shop to create apps for a large network of merchants, and in the process elevate the incumbent companies beyond their traditional roles—during an interview Charron said he did not want to refer to First Data as a "payments processor."

PayPal, for example, has spent more than a billion dollars to acquire and expand Braintree to make itself more attractive to developers, and Square has spent the past two years adding services as it hones its focus on merchant acquiring and plots an IPO of its own.

First Data's IPO helps the company change the conversation about its operations from corporate debt to forward-looking innovation.

"We did a $3.5 billion private placement last year and the IPO should come in at close to another $3 billion," Charron said. "The conversation around First Data was its debt load and capital structure. [The private placement and IPO] puts that question mark to bed."

Even as First Data was executing its private placement and planning its IPO, it was investing heavily in new technology, more during the past two years than the previous ten, according to Charron. First Data partnered with Capgemini to speed development and deployment and with a base of more than 4,000 financial institutions and 6 million merchants, and Charron hopes First Data's technology and financial recovery will prove attractive to more developers.

So far about a thousand developers have worked on First Data's technology, producing hundreds of apps, he said.

First Data's mobile point of sale product line, Clover, is a focal point of the company's current strategy.

"People see Clover as a point of sale, but it's not a terminal replacement," Charron said. "It's an operational platform that businesses can run on."

Clover includes embedded technology such as a camera, which can be used to take images of checks, for example. "There are still people using checks," Charron said.

Recent apps built for Clover include online storefronts, digital menus, online ordering and business management, Charron said, adding a food delivery service is also in the works. Other apps are even further removed from payments, including payroll and personnel management.

"The 'app' model is becoming an important part of the small- to medium-sized business point of sale product suite," said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group, adding the big providers offer marketplaces where merchants can pick and choose capabilities for their point of sale systems.

"It makes sense given that the tablet or iPad is the base platform for most of these systems, the merchant is comfortable with the model and most likely uses it for their non business activity," he said.

However, developers may choose to work only with larger players, which could reduce opportunities for smaller companies, Peterson said, adding it may make sense for an even more open system in which developers could write for every platform. "If that were to occur we might see an explosion of creativity for this category."

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